From Atheism to Terrorism


Today, in the frightening milieu of religious extremism, intolerance, and terrorist attacks, one gets a little uncomfortable of even mentioning of the word “religion”. Very often, in TV shows and debates, I see younger generation boiling with a ‘rebellion of sorts’, against religion, which is based on insufficient knowledge and dearth of rationality. Suddenly, people with Tilaks, skull caps, robes and gowns have emerged as the sources of all the conflict in the world. Well, it’s true that the acts of a bunch of terrorists and religious extremists pose a grave threat to world peace and human civilization, but to malign and vilify all those who publicly profess a particular religion or display its symbols, for the act of a few, may not be the right way to address the problem. Therefore, it becomes crucial to explore the journey of religiosity to find out the nuances of the phenomenon in which a person travels from the atheism or most basic theism to religious extremism.

How does atheism take one to the extreme of terrorism? #Terrorism Click To Tweet

The earliest stage could be atheism, which means an absence of faith in any omniscient, omnipotent being or a personal or impersonal God or supersensible entities like soul and consciousness. It also implies a counter-narrative which propounds the ultimate reality of the material world. The next stage is agnosticism which is more of an academic concept, expressing one’s inability to have any affirmative or negative judgement about entities like God, soul and cosmos, in a very Kantian sense of the “impossibility of metaphysics”.

Theism implies having a very rudimentary sense of belief in supersensible entities. However, in the case of Hinduism, Buddhism and other oriental traditions, it might not be a correct approach to see things through the prism of theism and atheism, as there is complete oneness between the God or ultimate truth and mankind, and all the plurality is illusory and relative. Hinduism incorporates atheism in its extreme form when Carvaka, a die-hard materialist is revered as great sage in Mahabharata. But, certainly Hinduism in the majority of its multiple belief systems would fall in theist category because there is a belief in the existence of transcendental entities. Next stage is of being “religious” where one follows a particular belief system in a very basic manner with a sense of devotion which implies practicing some primary rituals and following the belief system as a part of life, but at this stage there is no rigidity in one’s outlook emanating from one’s belief system. For instance, any Hindu or Muslim who adheres to scriptural injunctions and rituals without rigidity and exclusivist tendencies, and with faith in the general underlying principles of the religion and, shows respect or tolerance towards other belief systems, could be called religious.

In the next stage of religious fundamentalism, one witnesses a rigorous form of discipline in a follower in the obeying the fundamentals of religion which could be in the form of routine prayers, rituals, customs and other scriptural injunctions. However, at this stage, one witnesses a strong element of rigidity and a certain degree of intolerance towards other faith systems or even a sense of superiority in one’s own belief system vis-à-vis other belief systems. Until this stage, one can survive in a multicultural society with some level of discomfort.

The real problem begins with the stage of religious extremism. Politically, this stage demands the domination of state institutions by the people following a particular religious ideology at the expense of other religious minorities. It could be a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia, Iran or a state like Iraq of Saddam Hussain dominated by Sunnis, or the Islamic republic of Pakistan. At this stage, one has to have the feeling of animosity and hatred towards other faith systems and its followers. The extremists generally have a revisionist agenda (the concept of Gajwa-e-Hind i.e. re-conquest of India by Islam, nurtured by radical Islamic outfits and individuals), insanely high degree of intolerance, hatred and contempt towards other religious systems. Often such systems discriminate against a religious minority, persecute them and in extreme cases might nurture the political dreams of the ethnic cleansing of minorities. Socially such systems thrive on the strict literal translation of sacred texts in the matters of social regulation, jurispendence (punishments). Most of the times, such reading of the scriptural injunctions is rigid, anachronistic, out of context, and to serve the socio-political objectives of the extremist organizations/governments and individuals. However, in this stage a kind of religious aggression motivated by political ends is dominant but still any large scale violence is not witnessed generally, in order to secure one’s religious and socio-political objectives.

The next stage of radicalism is more of a preparatory stage leading someone towards the final stage of terrorist violence, rather than an independent stage in itself. Radicalization may involve specialized indoctrination or brain-washing programs for specific individuals, who are in the state of religious extremism. Such individuals, by virtue of the degree of their passionate extremism are considered more suitable to be indoctrinated for committing an act of terrorist violence. The last stage is of violent extremism or terrorism. At this stage, the terrorist organizations and individuals indulge in extreme and most brutal form of violence to secure their socio-political ends based in their narrow reading of scriptures. The intensity, brutality and frequency of violence could vary from killing a few innocent civilians with extreme brutality to strike terror in the minds of common folk, if the cadre strength is small and military strength is weak, to mass killings of civilians and armed forces if the cadre strength is large and military strength is strong.

After the stage of religious fundamentalism, there is a possibility of mild diversion into the spiritual domain. One realizes the futility of rigidity and contempt towards other faiths, for one’s own spiritual growth. Therefore, such an individual is not obsessed with religious symbols and rituals and retains the core philosophical message of the religion if the following of rituals and customs is in conflict with rationality, the beliefs of others and the requirements of the changing times.

Counter-terrorism measures must reflect the nuanced understanding of the process in which an individual turns from a “religious person” to a “terrorist”. Most of the followers fall in the second and third category i.e. religious and religious fundamentalist so a right kind of policy intervention at these stages will be very helpful in checking the growth of radicalization. And, it might be very helpful to engage the liberal and spiritual religious scholars in such policy interventions as they can convey the right message of the religion and the followers repose their trust in them.


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